was commonplace for 30 or so of the little cars to scrap for a corner in North American races.
There was a delightful simplicity about the original Sprite, with the protruding headlights mounted atop the large bonnet section that was heavy to lift but offered great accessibility — an engine change could take little more than 20 minutes. Sadly, Bugeye ownership passed me by, and my first Sprite was a light-blue MKII with sliding windows, followed by a red 1962 Midget.
Brother Rodger experimented with a white Midget 1098cc, fitting a supercharger that had been adapted by Kumeu tuner Ted Thompson. Fitting a Shorrock blower presented few problems and boosted power by 36 per cent, resulting in a marked improvement in acceleration.
Rodger ran the supercharged car at one Pukekohe national meeting, but more successful was his dark green 1098cc Sprite with wind-up windows, prepared by Mission Bay Motors and bored out to 1220cc. This car had special extractors, a modified exhaust, and lively camshaft and was lowered and had modified shock absorbers, different spring rates, a limited-slip differential, and fatter anti-roll bars front and rear. Cornering was vastly improved by the fitment of 13-inch Dunlop racing rubber to the wire wheels.
At a Pukekohe national meeting in November 1966, Anderson finished second in a handicap event to Jim Boyd’s much faster Lycoming Special, and, in the Half Hour sports-car feature on the same circuit a month later, the Sprite finished second to a Daimler Dart in the production class. With the windscreen and surround removed the Anderson Sprite took second in the sports-car production category at the 1967 Pukekohe Grand Prix and won the handicap event at the Levin Tasman meeting the same month. When the car was reverted to standard and sold, Anderson said it was still remarkably quick.
Modifying these cars (and Minis, of course) in the ’60s was easy enough, and carried the blessing of BMC’S special-tuning department, which produced tuning guides and offered a huge array of approved go-faster equipment. The Midgets and Sprites were available with
October 1966, heralded arrival of the 1275cc engine with 48kw, but this was not the more specialized Mini Cooper S power plant, and it ran a normal forged-steel crankshaft in place of the tougher, more specialized nitrided-steel crank.
The 1.3-litre engine meant 10 per cent more power and an 11-per-cent boost in torque. The soft-top hood was now permanently attached, instead of being arranged with detachable hood irons and covering. Popularity of the model remained strong, with production running at 350 cars a week. Detail changes in 1970 comprised new chrome bumpers, a revamped grille, black side winders, Rostyle steel wheels, reclining seats, an uprated heater, and cabin enhancements.
MG enthusiasts were hardly cheering when the final changes were implemented in June 1975, with the replacement of the venerable A-series engine with the fractionally more powerful Triumphdesigned 1493cc unit used in the Spitfire and discontinued Triumph 1500. But the car’s appearance was damned by the fitting of ugly black polyurethane bumpers to meet North American safety legislation, while the rounded rear wheel arches that had been introduced four years earlier reverted to the flattened-style arches of older versions. Overall ride height was increased, again for US safety reasons, but, in fact, it made the car less agile and simply inferior when it came to handling. Unsurprisingly, enthusiasts invariably favour chrome-bumper models from 1972 until 1974.
New Zealand road test
Seabrook Fowlds, the Auckland Austin agent, provided my first MKII Sprite 1098cc road test in 1963. At that time, the new retail price was $1658, and, two years later — when I drove a Dominion Motors–supplied Midget with wind-up windows — the price had risen to $1810, with the Austin equivalent a few dollars less. By 1969, the MG had risen to $2693, $3200 in 1973, and $4500 by 1975, the last year in which the model was imported new into New Zealand. The first of the 1491cc Triumph-engined Midgets in September 1974 were priced at $3900.
The car had always been fun to drive, but, in 1964, was improved by deleting the quarter-elliptic rear leaf springs in favour of half-elliptic springs, improving rigidity and axle location. This new design was not only lighter but also resulted in a better ride with diminished axle hop over indifferent surfaces, and less-sensitive steering. Engineers were able to eliminate much of the body stiffening required by the old suspension. So, while the new window glass and window lifts were clearly heavier than the old detachable widescreen models, the weight saving in the suspension meant that the newer car was only fractionally heavier than its predecessor.
The light rack-and-pinion steering had long been praised for being quick and accurate, with little more than two turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock. In its 1963 test of a MKII Sprite, the American magazine said, “The Sprite can be driven through a series of fast S bends with only the slightest movement of the wheel and although the tail tends to drift out, from body roll, on entering a curve, it stabilizes almost immediately and gives the feeling of a completely neutral steering car.
“Due to its responsiveness and neutral handling it is an excellent car for the beginning sports car driver; and with the nominal initial cost and good fuel economy it is also ideal for the impecunious.”
As a result of British Leyland rationalization, Sprite production ceased eight years before that of the Midget ended, and a larger fuel tank was fitted to Midgets after January 1972. Even though Midget production stopped in late 1979, cars were still being sold in 1980 — 22 years after the first Bugeye Sprite appeared. Today, a healthy number remains on Kiwi roads, a sure sign of the affection felt for a rather special car.